October 31st marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. I hope I didn’t lose you on that sentence. Perhaps you are saying, “Things that happened 500 years ago are history (school/boring), and those other words are long and capitalized. Are you going to give me a history lesson using big words I have to Google?” No (Well, maybe). The Protestant Reformation was simply a movement to address corruption in the Church. Five hundred years ago, there were only two kinds of churches—there had been only one church split in the entire history of the church! One church dominated Europe and it was not pretty. There was political corruption, moral decay, and doctrinal error. But like I said it dominated, so what could you do?
Option 1: You could quietly dissent and faithfully shepherd your family or parish in the truth of the Gospel.
Option 2: You could take a stand against the corruption and be burned at the stake like a John Wycliffe or a John Hus. (Wycliffe had died of a stroke, so the church had his body exhumed and burnt!)
Option 3: You could say, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!” and become a travelling Indulgence salesman. (Indulgences were alms you could pay as penance for a deceased loved-one in Purgatory, a temporary place of torment where the sins you committed as a Christian are “purged” through fire. Your alms could help them get through Purgatory quicker…)
In 1517 we discover that many believers had chosen Option 1 because, at last, when those who chose Option 2 weren’t [successfully] burnt at the stake, they almost immediately had millions of followers! This is the Protestant Reformation, and the spark that ignited it was the Augustinian monk, Martin Luther and his 95 theses: a list of 95 things that the church was doing wrong. Luther wasn’t known for his tact. But he is known for tacking his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. This is often understood as an act of defiance, but the church’s door functioned much like a community bulletin board in Luther’s day. Luther also delivered a copy to his bishop to send to the Pope. This would be like me writing a letter to the SBC, then posting a link to it on Twitter with a #CATC hashtag. What resulted was a heated correspondence between Luther and the offended powers of the Roman Catholic Church. This correspondence culminated in the Church’s demand that Luther recant his claims, to which Luther replied that he could not do so in good conscience. Luther was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. He might also have been executed, but was kidnapped and held captive in Wartburg Castle by his supporters to protect him from assassins and arrest. Months and years go by and Luther continues to write and teach. There are many (historical/school/boring) reasons why Luther was not arrested and killed, but the main one was political. Luther kept the Pope busy and distracted, and not arresting him was a way of denying the Pope’s authority. Luther’s survival and the thriving of his following perked up the ears of emperors and princes looking to weaken the Pope’s hold on Europe, but more importantly, it caught the attention of other godly leaders in the Church who had long desired freedom to reclaim biblical, orthodox Christian doctrine. Soon, in addition to the German Reformation there was a Swiss Reformation and an English Reformation.
So, why do we care? Why is this 500 year old stuff so important? To answer, I would like to suggest four things the Reformation is not, and two things that it is.
WHAT THE REFORMATION WAS NOT
The Reformation was not Reformers leaving the Catholic Church to start their own churches.
The Reformers were just what their name indicates—they wanted to change the Catholic church, not leave it. They mourned the fact that doctrines like Justification by Faith Alone had been downplayed (and in some cases rejected!). They loved the Church and wanted to see her filled once more with the worship of her members in their native languages. The thought of leaving to start their own churches was not on their radar, though their excommunication from the Roman Church left them no choice but to worship separately.
The Reformers were not pure, undefiled saints amidst a generation of wicked men.
The Reformers were flawed persons. They made mistakes, many of which are recorded for history to see. Celebrating the Reformation is not a celebration of everything these men did, but of the heart of their mission and the results of their work.
The Reformation was not the recovery of a pure, undefiled Christianity from centuries of Catholic tradition.
First, Christianity has never been pure and undefiled. Goats have always worshipped among the sheep, and wolves have always managed to make themselves shepherds. The Reformation is, in fact, proof that there was a continuous heritage of Biblical faith within the Church. These Christians who had been worshipping within the Church of the late Middle Ages knew the truth when they saw it and soon populated the churches of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Cranmer. In fact, these men would frequently quote early and medieval Christians in their refutations of their opponents. Which leads us to number four.
The Reformation was not the triumph of Scripture over tradition.
Calvin and Luther would have resented this pitting of Scripture against tradition. They will, however, fight tooth and nail to refute the equating of tradition with Scripture as authoritative. Tradition (the wisdom and teaching of those who have gone before us) is a God-given means of knowledge and grace, but it is always a human interpretation of Scripture, which alone stands as the Church’s final authority.
THE REFORMATION WAS
The Reformation was a necessary evil.
I hope we can all agree that church splits are always bad. But I also hope we can all agree that they are sometimes necessary. The Reformation was not just a church split, but the splintering of an otherwise unified Church into dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of denominations. It sparked over a century of back-biting and bloodshed (Yes, Protestants killed Catholics, too). It seems strange to celebrate such an event, but it really could not have been otherwise. The Church’s liturgy and Scriptures lay in a dead language, foreign to the worshippers. God’s grace was held captive by a Church that dispensed it at her own will–A will often swayed by the right price.
The Reformation is why you and I can read our Bibles.
As Christians our most constant means of seeking the face of Christ is in the pages of Scripture. If anyone ever refers to Church at the Cross as “Reformed,” I’m sure it’s because we are always reading the Scriptures together in our liturgy, always reading the Scriptures privately in the Daily Reading Plan, always memorizing the Scriptures, and always teaching the Scriptures in our preaching, children’s, student, and equipping ministries. My prayer is that the Church is always reforming—always putting the Scriptures in the hands of her people and equipping them to respond together in worship of their Lord.